After World War II, Poland ended up in the
Soviet sphere of interest in the divided Europe, the
communist eastern bloc. The liberation from communism in
the 1980s was led by the trade union Solidarity with the
leader Lech Wałęsa at the forefront. In 1990 he became
the country's first democratically elected president. In
the following decade, the democracy movement was divided
and Poland was ruled by weak governments. During the
1990s, the country struggled with high unemployment
while the economy was progressing, especially after the
2004 EU entry.
During the end of the Second World War, at the Yalta
Conference in February 1945, the United States and
Britain agreed to the Soviet Union's demand that Poland
be included in the Soviet sphere of interest in post-war
Europe. The Western powers recognized the communist
Soviet-installed Lublin government as Poland's
legitimate government. The conference also decided that
Poland's borders would be moved west. Even today, the
perception remains in Poland that the country was let
down by the Western powers.
List of most commonly used acronyms containing Poland. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.
At the next major power conference, in Potsdam in the
summer of 1945, the Allies decided that the former
German territories east of the rivers Oder and Neisse
(in Polish Odra and Nysa) should be placed under Polish
administration. These territories (Lower Silesia, West
Pomerania and southern Ost-Prussia) make up about a
third of Poland's current area. At the same time, the
new Polish-Soviet border was established on the Bug
river. Poland was allowed to resign about half of
pre-war territory to the Soviet Union (today's southwest
Lithuania with the capital Vilnius, western Belarus and
After the end of the war, Poland was on three sides
surrounded by Soviet or Soviet-dominated territory. The
exception was the Baltic Sea coast in the north. The
Moscow-controlled Polish Communists gained a monopoly on
power. The power system was called "folk democracy". The
Communist Party's takeover of power was not undramatic.
At times, the country was on the brink of civil war.
Formally, the power of the Communist Party was
sanctioned in the 1947 election, which was characterized
by cheating and abuse of the opposition.
Soviet control of Poland was further tightened in
1948, when Communist leader Władysław Gomułka, who
advocated a so-called Polish path to socialism, was
imprisoned. At the same time, the Communist and
Socialist parties were merged into the Polish United
Workers' Party (PZPR). The party's leader became
Bolesław Bierut, who before World War II was an agent of
the Soviet Security Service and Soviet leader Josef
Stalin's obedient tool.
Before World War II, Poland was predominantly an
agricultural country. The war meant that 80–90 percent
of the industries that existed were destroyed. Between
1945 and 1949, the forces concentrated on a
reconstruction. Subsequently, the command economy,
socialist planning economy was introduced after the
Soviet model. The regime focused on massive
industrialization, with emphasis on heavy industry
including the weapons industry. Agriculture and consumer
goods were neglected.
Stalin's death in 1953 shook the Polish regime. After
unrest among workers in Poznań in 1956, Gomułka returned
as first party secretary. He succeeded in stopping a
threatening Soviet invasion by explaining to Soviet
leader Khrushchev that he was an old-fashioned communist
who did not intend to take Poland out of the Warsaw
Pact. A period of liberalization followed.
Gradually, Gomułka's regime (called "Mała
Stabilizacja", the Little Stabilization) became
increasingly dictatorial. In 1968, students around the
country demonstrated democratization, but protests were
turned down. About 100 people were imprisoned and
thousands of intellectuals were forced to leave their
jobs. The regime's propaganda contained strong
anti-Semitic elements and the purges also hit many Poles
of Jewish burden who did not have to do with the
protests. About 50,000 Polish Jews left the country.
In December 1970, the shipyard workers in Gdańsk and
Szczecin striked in protest of sharp increases in food
prices. Gomułka was forced to resign and succeeded
Edward Gierek. The new regime has invested heavily in
achieving greater stability by raising the population's
living standards, including by means of large loans from
the West. Some liberalization towards dissimilar
thinking could be felt as the dependence on credit from
the West increased.
Fight for democracy
Following strikes and demonstrations against new food
price increases in June 1976, the Workers' Defense
Committee (KOR) was formed, where workers and
intellectuals merged. Later, the KOR was transformed
into an opposition group that demanded the
democratization of the entire political system. KOR's
activities during the latter part of the 1970s were the
beginning of a process that was crowned with the fall of
the communist system 15 years later.
When the Gierek regime in June 1980 tried to raise
prices again, a wave of strikes spread across the
country. This time, with the support of the KOR
advisers, the workers demanded not only a new economic
and social policy but also increased democracy, and in
particular the right to free trade unions and free
opinion, but not free elections to Parliament. It was
considered such a far-reaching requirement that the
regime could not possibly agree to it.
On August 31, 1980, an agreement, the so-called
Gdańsk Agreement, was signed. The workers were allowed
to form a trade union movement from the party and the
state, Solidarity (Solidarność), with Lech Wałęsa,
electrician at the Leninvarvet in Gdańsk, as leader.
Gierek was replaced as leader of the Communist Party
by Stanisław Kania, but he was allowed to leave General
Wojciech Jaruzelski a year later. The Soviet Union,
which had from the outset taken a hostile stance on the
changes in Poland, subjected the country's leadership to
heavy pressure, including threats of military invasion,
to end Solidarity. Jaruzelski, who was a party leader,
head of government and defense minister, secretly
prepared a military intervention. Solidarity, which at
its first and only congress in September 1981 counted
nearly ten million members, appeared increasingly clear
as a basically political organization.
"State of war"
On December 13, 1981, an emergency permit, called a
"war permit" was introduced in Poland. The "Military
Council for the Rescue of the Nation," a creation of
Jaruzelski, took over all power. Thousands of people
were imprisoned and all political and union activities
were banned. However, solidarity was able to maintain
certain activities in underground forms. Polish opinion
has remained divided in the assessment of Jaruzelski and
his state of war: for one camp, the state of war was "a
minor evil" which saved Poland from Soviet march, on the
other hand it was a brutal way of preserving the
The state of emergency was formally abolished in July
1983, but the last political prisoners were not released
until September 1986.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the communist power
apparatus became increasingly demoralized and corrupt.
The economy was in a state of dissolution. None of the
economic problems that triggered the 1980-1981 crisis
had been solved. The shortage of goods led to rations,
queues and black trade. Inflation increased.
Some leading regime representatives, with Jaruzelski
at the forefront, understood that the possibilities of
the communist power were exhausted. Each change required
an agreement with Solidarity. They assumed that the
Soviet leadership (since 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev with the
reform policy perestroika) would not oppose
political and economic thinking. Jaruzelski, who was
close friends with Gorbachev, perhaps even assumed that
Gorbachev would welcome experiments in a satellite
The so-called round table negotiations with the then
still banned Solidarity began in February 1989 and
lasted until April. Solidarity was represented by Lech
Wałęsa and a number of recently released human rights
fighters. It was agreed to hold partly free elections.
They took place on June 4, 1989, the same day that the
Communist Party of China ordered a bloody massacre at
Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The purpose of the
roundtable was to keep the Communist Party in ultimate
control, including foreign policy, the police and the
military, and Jaruzelski to get a newly created post as
president. But the opposition forces would be prepared
to sit in official political assemblies and gain
influence over economic and social policies (taking
responsibility for the "Ministries of Distress and
Solidarity leaders saw the settlement as a first step
towards complete democratization, but it would not be
completed immediately, rather in a few years. They did
not feel ready to take over responsibility for the
country and did not think that the communists were
prepared to relinquish power.
But the outcome of the first partially free elections
in Eastern Europe surprised everyone. The elections
became a referendum for or against communism. Solidarity
won a smashing victory. Even some of the mandates
earmarked for the Communist Party according to the
preliminary settlement were won by candidates who were
admittedly members of the party, but whom the party
leadership could not trust. It was clear that a regime
change could only be prevented by force.
The generals at the head of the Polish Communist
Party - Jaruzelski, Interior Minister Czesław Kiszczak
and the head of government Mieczysław Rakowski - were
not prepared to roll out the tanks. They accepted the
exit. They had to argue in the party's political office
against the forces that were prepared to defend their
power at any cost. The newly elected members of the
Soldiers in the Sejm (Parliament's lower house) held
their part of the agreement and made possible the
election of Jaruzelski as president, which was done with
the overweight of one vote. In August 1989, Jaruzelski
was given the task of forming a government for Tadeusz
Mazowiecki, adviser to Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa's
Communism is falling
This appointment marked the end of the Communists'
45-year power monopoly in Poland and became the start
signal for liberation throughout Eastern Europe. Two
months later, the Berlin Wall fell. Soviet leader
Gorbachev publicly called on the Polish communists to
find themselves in power.
The Mazowiecki Ministry, which took office on
September 12, 1989, was a coalition government that also
included four communist ministers. Its historical
contribution was to peacefully implement the transition
to democracy and to lay the foundations for a modern
rule of law. The other major task was to abolish the
planning economy and introduce a market economy. This
was accomplished by Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz
through his radical shock therapy - albeit at the price
of great social tensions. The Communists in the
government and the Sejm voted for these changes.
The Communist Party dissolved in January 1990 and the
communist ministers disappeared from the government a
few months later. General Jaruzelski, who was elected
for a five-year term, resigned prematurely in the fall
of 1990. He left the field free of Lech Wałęsa, who in a
direct election became the country's first
democratically elected president.
Mazowiecki, who was running for Wałęsa in the
presidential election, resigned as prime minister in
December of that year. The presidential campaign marked
the end of unity in the anti-communist camp. Growing
unemployment and increasing social divisions contributed
to dissatisfaction. The disappointment that the positive
effects of the reforms were delayed turned against the
politicians in Solidarity. Democracy could be introduced
overnight. But the effects of the market economy had to
wait a long time.
The democracy movement is shattered
The Mazowiecki government was replaced by a
government hand-picked by Wałęsa. Prime Minister Jan
Krzysztof Bielecki, the leader of a small liberal group
in Gdańsk, became without any real support in the Sejm.
The first completely free election in the fall of 1991
led to a right-wing but divided parliament with 17
parties and ten independent members. The two following
government coalitions, led by Jan Olszewski and Hanna
Suchocka respectively, had fragile support in Parliament
and survived for six and 14 months respectively.
A recent election in 1993 led to a grand victory for
the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) with the Reformed
Communist Party at the forefront. Solidarity and several
small parties failed to reach the newly introduced five
per cent barrier to the Sejm. Two years later,
Solidarity also lost the presidential post when Wałęsa
lost the election to SLD's young and dynamic leader
Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a pragmatic and opportunistic
politician within the former Communist Party.
Solidarity returned in the 1997 elections, which was
won by the solidarity party Solidarity's election
campaign (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarnůsci, AWS), which
included Solidarity. The Prime Minister became Jerzy
Buzek, an influential activist in Solidarity and later
President of the European Parliament (2009–2012). The
new government wanted to speed up and complete the
transformation in the country through extensive social
and economic reforms. Buzek led his government to the
term of office, 1997-2001, but failed to implement all
his ambitions. Growth was weakening, unemployment and
social gaps were growing. In 2000, Kwaśniewski was
In the 2001 parliamentary elections, AWS was swept
away. SLD regained power and Leszek Miller became prime
minister. The government focused primarily on
accelerating growth, including by reducing public
spending and the budget deficit, as well as finalizing
negotiations on Polish membership in the EU.
A referendum on EU membership was held in June 2003.
The Yes side won with 77.5 percent of the vote. The
following year, Poland joined the EU.
Poland becomes an EU member
Soon, however, SLD's and Prime Minister Miller's
popularity began to decline. The reason was mainly
corruption scandals, but also rising unemployment (up to
almost 20 percent) and cuts in the welfare system.
SLD's holding of power came to an end in the
parliamentary elections in the fall of 2005. With low
turnout, twins Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński's
middle-right party Law and Justice (PiS) won by a
marginal margin over the liberal Citizens' Platform
(PO), led by Donald Tusk. Jarosław Kaczyński became head
of government. Lech Kaczyński defeated Donald Tusk in
the presidential election held at the same time.
PiS formed government together with two small
parties: the populist rural self-defense party and the
ultranationalist Polish Families Association (LPR). The
political ambition of the Kaczyński brothers was to
begin a new era in the history of Poland; now all the
remnants of the communist era would be cleared. A
foreign policy with an emphasis on Poland's national
interests, including the use of veto in the EU, would
end the former concession policy towards the major
European countries. The new policy would give Poland
higher status internationally. But Kaczyński's lack of
diplomatic knowledge made larger and larger voter groups
The air crash in Smolensk
The twins came to rule Poland for two years. Internal
tensions caused the government coalition to collapse in
the summer of 2007 and Kaczyński announced new
elections, which PiS lost. The two coalition parties,
LPR and Self-Defense, failed to pass the five percent
barrier to the Sejm and dissolved shortly thereafter.
The winner of the election instead became the Citizens'
Platform (PO), which received 209 seats against 166
seats for PiS. PO leader Donald Tusk was appointed prime
minister. PO then formed government together with the
small Polish Peasant Party (PSL).
On April 10, 2010, President Lech Kaczyński was
killed in a plane crash on Russian territory near
Smolensk along with 95 other people, including his wife,
the military leadership, the Governor of the Riksbank
and members of the Sejm from various parties (but no
government members). The plane was on its way to a
commemorative ceremony for 22,000 Polish officers who
were arched on order by Stalin in 1940. The President's
tasks were taken over by Parliament's President
Bronisław Komorowski of the PO. In the summer of 2010,
he won the presidential election against PiS candidate
Jarosław Kaczyński for a few months.
After the 2011 election, Prime Minister Donald Tusk
began controversial austerity measures to bring down the
state's budget deficit. The spring 2012 decision to
raise the retirement age to 67 for all led to reduced
support for PO and public opinion success for Jarosław
Kaczyński's PiS, whose voters largely come from Catholic
working class. Liberal labor legislation with reduced
job security also aroused stronger trade union protests.
In addition, scandals in and near the government parties
contributed to growing support for the opposition and
declining popularity for the government.
But the economy has long been a trump card for the
PO-led government. Tusk was the only prime minister in
the EU to manage his country through the financial and
euro crises in the latter part of the 21st century
without recession (economic downturn; see Finance). It
strengthened Poland's position in Brussels, and Tusk
pursued an active EU policy that had domestic policy
The PiS-led opposition benefited from nationalist and
EU-skeptical sentiments among the Poles, and in the wake
of the 2010 euro crisis, the Tuscan government was low
with plans for a Polish euro accession (see Economy).
While around 60 percent of Poles previously supported a
Polish euro membership, nearly 70 percent were against
Kaczyński and PiS also attracted those affected by
two decades of social transformation. Unemployment rose
in the wake of the financial crisis, and in conjunction
with the austerity measures in 2012, the pace of
economic growth slowed. In the fall, large
demonstrations were held in Warsaw against the
government. The protests continued during 2013.
Tusk's coalition tried to shift its focus from
austerity to plans for investments in communications and
energy supply. Tusk also proposed extended maternity
allowance in an attempt to meet Kaczyński's promises of
increased support for families. Otherwise, there was a
conflict between the PO government's liberalism and the
opposition's conservatism in the family policy, the
issue of abortion and the attitude towards same-sex
marriage. Kaczyński's rhetoric is in line with the
Catholic Church's message and attracts
ultra-conservative Radio Maryja's listeners, a core
voter group for PiS.
Strong feelings had been stirred up in Poland by the
plane crash in Russian Smolensk in 2010. Jarosław
Kaczyński claimed that it was not an accident. His
theory was supported by about a third of Poles, who
believe the aircraft was blown up in a Russian attack.
The vast majority of this group were supporters of PiS,
and like Kaczyński, they accused Prime Minister Tusk of
bowing to Russia and hiding the truth about the crash.
Tusk rejected the charges but was hard pressed by the
consequences of the tragedy, and the opposition demanded
his departure. Most Poles seemed to accept the official
Russian and Polish declaration that the crash was an
accident with human error in dense fog, but a majority
still wanted an international investigation.
In the sometimes bitter political climate, President
Bronisław Komorowski acted as a calming force. Despite
his background in Tusk's liberal PO, he won the support
of many conservatives by focusing on national symbols
and emphasizing the importance of the family. In a 2013
opinion poll, 70 percent said they had confidence in the
In the fall of 2014, Tusk left Polish policy to
become President of the European Council, the EU's
"President" instead. His party mate Ewa Kopacz, who was
the Speaker of Parliament, took over the post of Prime